Getting Mark to agree is too easy, an ambush and a phone call from Lewis is all it takes. Mark follows them on autopilot, without a single sarcastic comment, and that’s when Chris knows how bad it is. Beth hands him a stack of clothes and goes to finish packing up the car, but Chris stays and takes stock of Mark’s body as he changes out of his nice press clothes.
“Like what you see?” Mark quips as he strips off his dress shirt.
“I do,” Chris answers sincerely, because Mark’s musculature is much closer to his pre-Mars condition and because sincerity always seems to throw Mark off guard.
Mark huffs and rolls his eyes, but falls silent to dress instead of bickering. Chris frown a little.
His docility reminds Chris eerily of the weeks just after his rescue when he’d been too tired to do much of anything and lasts until they join Beth in the garage where she’s waiting and leaning against the rear bumper of their rented SUV with a little wire mesh pouch.
“Phone, please,” Beth demands, holding out her hand.
Mark takes the bag from her unresisting fingers, poking at where their two phones are already nestled inside. “This is metal,” he says, confused, “Did you make a Faraday cage for our phones?”
Beth shrugs. “It’s the only way to make sure they can’t be tracked. Not even powering them off is foolproof anymore.”
“Uh-huh,” Mark says. “But you realize it also keeps us from, oh I don’t know, making calls?”
“It’s fine,” Beth says, “I have a burner phone.” She holds up a much chunkier, rugged-looking phone. “This one is satellite compatible, but we’re not going to need it.”
Mark looks intrigued for a minute by the new phone, but then he visibly forces himself to refocus on Beth. “A burner phone,” he repeats, incredulous, “Are we spies now? Are we on the lam?”
“I think getting you away from the law would be easier than avoiding Annie and the press,” Chris says.
“Oh my god,” Mark says. “You even have an SUV with tinted windows! This is a tired cliché!”
Beth pulls his phone out of his jacket pocket while he’s distracted, grabbing the pouch from him and dropping his phone inside. She smiles brightly at him as she closes it up.
“Oh my god,” Mark repeats. “Am I being kidnapped?”
“I didn’t think it was possible, but you’ve gotten even more melodramatic since we returned to Earth,” Beth says. She tucks their phones away in her backpack and clicks the remote to shut the back door of the SUV. She winks at Mark and heads around to the driver’s seat, popping her gum as she goes.
“I mean, guys, c’mon. This is stupid. Are you expecting me to just go along with this?” Mark asks plaintively.
“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die,” Chris says, voice dropped an octave, cheesy and fake.
Mark makes an outraged noise like he always does when someone other than him tries to make a bad joke.
“And actually, I expect you to do what the Commander says,” Chris adds. He opens the passenger side door for him, and Mark climbs in with nothing more than a token protest.
“Where’s everyone else?” Mark asks as Chris slides into the back seat and grins at Beth in the rearview mirror.
“They didn’t want to leave their families for a full week, so they’re covering your press,” Beth says. She hits the button to turn the engine on, and the radio comes on, blaring Hot Stuff throughout the cabin.
Mark yells in disgust and hits buttons on the dash at random until he manages to cut it off.
The silence rings for a minute. Chris bites his tongue to keep from laughing, and he can see how tight and thin Beth’s lips are where they’re pressed together.
“You did that on purpose,” Mark says as Beth backs out of the space in the garage.
“Prove it,” Beth says.
Mark grumbles and then settles, staring out the windshield.
Beth finds some non-disco pop music and sets the volume low to play in the background. It’s not until they’re on the highway and cruising along that Mark speaks again.
“Wait,” he says, sharply enough that Beth looks over and tightens her grip on the steering wheel. “Wait. Does this mean Vogel is doing Carpool Karaoke?”
Chris laughs at that mental image, and Beth punches Mark lightly on the arm for scaring her, eyes back on the road.
“I think they’re rescheduling that one,” Chris says, “or maybe Lewis will do it.”
“Too bad,” Mark says. “I’d have paid to see that.”
“Isn’t life just full of disappointments?” Beth drawls, amused.
“Yeah,” Mark says, heavier than their playful banter would call for, and turns to look out the window.
Chris rummages in the backpack Lewis had packed for Mark and finds the sunglasses that match his new glasses. He passes them up to Mark, who appears to snap himself out of his sudden mood as easily as he snaps the sunglass lenses on over his frames.
“Hey,” he asks, “Does the burner phone get Twitter?”
“Nope,” Chris says cheerfully.
Mark sighs dramatically. “Where are we going again?”
“I told you already,” Beth says. “Away.”
“Okay,” Marks says doubtfully, “and are we there yet?”
Beth ignores him and pops her gum.
Mark sighs a second time, and Chris watches in amusement as Mark decides to go with it. He curls up, far too practiced at sleeping in confined spaces, and drops right off to sleep. Chris catches Beth’s eye in the mirror again and smiles.
She spits her gum out into a tissue so she won’t accidentally wake Mark up and smiles back. “They’re so cute when they’re sleeping,” she says, and Chris snorts.
Chris pulls out a printed copy of a science article he’s a coauthor on and a pen and begins to mark it up. Beth’s driving is smooth enough that his handwriting is fairly legible, and he gets through half of the paper by the time she exits the highway.
Mark’s still asleep, breathing even and slow.
“He doesn’t usually sleep during car trips,” Beth says softly.
Chris hums, considering it. “Too excited about the destination, usually.”
“Or entertaining whoever he’s traveling with,” Beth adds. She glances over at Mark in the seat next to her. “This was a good idea.”
“Mark sure doesn’t think so,” Chris says, “but yeah, it is. I hope it works.”
It’s lunchtime when Beth eases the SUV to a stop, squinting at the GPS map on the burner phone before she gets out and walks over to the old gate, barbed wire decorating the top of it and a large NO TRESPASSING sign hung below. Trees cast dappled shadows overhead, and the brush around the gate is a little overgrown. No one’s there to meet them, but they’re expected.
Her door slamming shut wakes Mark, and he sits up slowly, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
He takes in the scene before him, watching as Beth walks over to the gate, digging out a small set of keys from her pocket to undo the padlock on the chain holding the gate closed. She uncoils the chain from around the gate and swings both halves open easily enough with only a low metal whine in the hinges.
“This is not reassuring me about the whole kidnapping thing,” Mark says, voice creaky with sleep, but he doesn’t sound upset about it.
“They have really nice hiking trails here,” Chris says as Beth climbs back into the driver’s seat.
“Mm, great,” Mark says, but the sarcasm is weak, and he’s looking around in interest as Beth drives through the open gate and stops again.
This time Chris jumps out and jogs back to close the gate and relock it. It’s nice to stretch his legs after sitting for so long. Even with all the shade trees, it’s a little warmer than Chris expected for the beginning of fall with the sun directly overhead, but it’s still a beautiful day.
The campsite they’re staying at is a couple miles down the path, which gets rougher and less travelled as they go. They don’t actually arrive so much as run out of road, so Beth parks the car right where the tire treads end, and they all get out to look around.
The trees open up into a small field just over a rise as they walk away from the SUV. There’s a firepit with several adirondack chairs in a loose circle around it, and across the clearing are several picnic tables lined up. Chris can just barely hear moving water, although he can’t see the creek from here.
“If there are picnic tables, does that mean we can have a picnic?” Mark asks longingly.
“Yeah, of course,” Beth says, poking around the firepit with a satisfied look on her face. “I made sandwiches, and then we’ll set up camp before it gets dark.”
Mark perks up. “You cooked?” he asks hopefully.
Beth waves a hand at Chris. “The baggie on top in the cooler. And grab the chips.”
Mark pumps his hand in celebration as Chris goes back to get the food. He understands Mark’s enthusiasm. He’d gone over to Beth’s the first time when they were still in training and had despaired at the collection of ramen, sriracha, pickles and takeout menus in her kitchen. It had left him unprepared for the all-consuming, Food Network caliber way she cooked the few times a year she felt like it. He’d watched her make these sandwiches: she’d started yesterday by baking her own bread from scratch.
He grabs each of their water bottles from the car, too, mostly full, and an apple for each of them. Mark and Beth are seated at the one picnic table in the sun. When Chris opens the bag, Mark moans and makes grabby hands.
Beth laughs at him, snagging the first one Chris pulls out for herself. “Chef’s prerogative,” she teases Mark, who is too busy claiming and unwrapping the second sandwich to care.
“Roast beef,” Mark breathes out, reverent. “I dreamed about this on Mars.”
“She made the horseradish fresh,” Chris tells him and grins when Mark rams the sandwich in his mouth.
They dedicate themselves to their food, quiet falling between them. It’s gorgeous: just enough wind to keep them cool in the sun and the creek bubbling away behind them in the woods.
“Sure you want those?” Beth asks when Mark grabs a handful of chips. “They’re made of potatoes.”
Mark flips her off, too busy chewing to respond, and shoves several in his mouth at once as if to spite her.
When she finishes her sandwich, Beth wordless hands Chris her apple, so he pulls out the small utility knife from a pocket in his windbreaker.
“You got a first aid kit for when you cut yourself?” Mark asks.
“Yeah,” Chris confirms, because he’d made up a small one to keep in his pocket and a larger one for his backpack to take hiking. NASA training had instilled in him too much contingency and risk management to forgo it.
“Well, then,” Mark says and hands over his apple as well, so Chris cuts off slices for them to share.
By the time Mark’s finished his second sandwich and Beth’s trying to lure nearby squirrels onto the table with bits of chips, the sun has moved enough that their picnic table is also in the shade. With the trees and the nearby ridge, they’re in for an early sunset.
“We should set up the tent,” Chris suggests, and Beth nods in agreement.
“Tent?” Mark asks, confused.
“Unless you want to sleep out under the stars?” Chris asks. “It gets pretty cool at night here, though.”
“When I agreed to this, I had no idea we’d be roughing it!” Mark exclaims indignantly. “I’ve had quite enough of tents to last a lifetime, thanks.”
“You’re welcome to sleep in truck,” Beth says at the same time Chris says, “But it’s a really nice tent.”
“I do not believe a place like this doesn’t have a lodge or some shit around somewhere,” Mark says.
He’s not wrong. A wealthy NASA donor who’d been ecstatic to let Mark Watney stay there for a few days owns this campsite and a good swathe of the surrounding land. Beth and Chris had taken one look at the pictures of the guesthouse, though, and knew they couldn’t stay there comfortably. It had imported marble floors and a wine cellar. They would spend the whole time worried they’d break something, and it wouldn’t give Mark a break from the strange reality of his celebrity status.
Beth and Chris glance at each other. Beth shrugs and starts to clean up from lunch, and Chris goes to unload the rest of their stuff.
“Here,” he says when he gets back, dropping the collapsed tent next to Mark. “Since you’re so experienced, I figured the expert should put this together.”
Mark rolls his eyes and starts to unpack it, complaining under his breath, but Chris ignores him. He knows Mark too well, knows the entire crew too well at this point, so he knows the difference between genuine upset and Mark blowing off steam, and this is decidedly the latter. Mark’s been required to be gracious and agreeable for weeks on end with his current press tour. It’s probably a relief to be allowed to grumble and show frustration. Chris leaves him to it and carts some wood over to the firepit, stacking it so that it’s ready to be lit once the sun goes down.
He looks over to check on Mark and finds him happily sitting in the sun, instructions spread out on the grass in front of him as he threads the tent poles into their rightful slots. It’s high end and big enough for all of them, and Chris had bought it himself with the hope that they’d be able to do this regularly. The initial fervor of their return to Earth was beginning to fade, even if the public’s infatuation with Mark wasn’t dying down anytime soon.
Chris sits down in one of the chairs circling the fire and allows himself to be lazy. Beth comes back with the sleeping bags and a bag of other supplies for the tent when Mark has almost finished, pounding stakes into the ground to hold the tent in place. “We’ll have to keep the food locked inside the truck,” she says, “but here’s everything else.”
“I don’t think there’s bears around here,” Chris says, raising an eyebrow in surprise.
“Raccoons,” Beth says darkly. She dumps the bag into Chris’ lap and then takes the chair next to him. “Jeez, Mark, aren’t you finished yet?” she calls out.
“This isn’t exactly a pop tent,” Mark shoots back. “It’s all fancy and shit.” He turns around and then adds, mock outraged, “And how come I’m the only one doing any work?”
“That’s why we brought you,” Beth says with a grin.
“It wasn’t to take shameless advantage of my body?” Mark asks absently, walking around the tent and poking at different sections as if checking whether the pressure will hold.
“I contain multitudes,” Beth answers, and when Mark looks over, she winks.
“I’ll put everything away,” Chris offers and retreats into the fully assembled tent.
Despite what Mark had said, they hadn’t wanted to rough it, so in with the sleeping bags is a compact air mattress that covers most of the area of the tent. It comes with a hand pump, so it takes awhile to get it blown up and roll out their bags, side by side. Since they’re not planning to move their campsite while they’re here, one of the bags even has small pillows inside, and there’s a tiny electric lantern that hangs from the center.
“How’s it look?” Beth asks when he steps back out of the tent, zipping it up behind him to keep out any bugs.
“Cozy,” he says. The sun has just begun to set, but the temperature hasn’t fallen, so Chris sits back down instead of lighting the fire.
Mark is sitting in one of the chairs with Beth perched on the edge in between his legs, as close as possible without sitting in his lap. Mark had paused when Chris appeared, but now he devotes himself to back to brushing out Beth’s hair.
Beth’d found out on the way home from Mars, the second, happier time when Mark was with them, that he could braid hair. It became commonplace to find Beth or Lewis sitting on the floor in front of Mark with his hands in their hair, always happier with his hands busy and a task to complete. NASA had been all over it as a way to promote interpersonal bonding and closeness.
Neither of them had mentioned it but Chris knows they both miss this, and that Beth had kept the length when they’d return to Earth for just this reason. He watches as Mark brushes Beth’s hair in long, smooth strokes, and finds himself soothed by the steady rhythm and the quiet, familiar whir of the bristles.
Mark keeps on for a lot longer than necessary to get the tangles out of Beth’s hair, but eventually he sets the brush aside and plaits her hair in a simple french braid that ends with the cutest little pony tail at the bottom of her hairline. She needs to grow it out longer still for anything more fancy like the fishtail braid which Lewis likes. Mark taps her shoulder, and she passes him a hairtie, careful not to move her head and ruin the braid. He ties it off with quick movements of his fingers.
“All done,” Mark says.
“Thanks,” Beth says, reaching up with a careful hand to feel the twists of hair against her scalp.
“Your turn,” Mark says to him, joking, as Beth gets up.
Chris smiles. “Sure,” he agrees.
He takes Beth’s place, although he doesn’t fit as easily in front of Mark, crouching in front of him more than sitting on the edge of the chair.
“You’re not giving me a lot to work with here,” Mark teases, but he gamely picks the brush up again.
“More than Vogel,” Chris points out, and he can feel Mark’s gentle laugh where they’re pressed up together.
The first pass of the brush through his hair snags on a couple of small windborn tangles, but after that it’s a smooth drag of the bristles against his scalp. Each stroke leeches away a bit of the unconscious tension in his neck, and he’s sad when Mark sets the brush down. Mark’s fingers are back before he can move, ruffling through his hair as if to style it instead of a braid. The faint scratch of his blunt nails feels even better than the brush.
After a minute, Chris pulls away and stands up. Instead of going back to his chair, he grabs the brush and circles around behind Mark to give him the same treatment.
Sometimes Mark refuses to let them take care of him like this, worried that they do it out of guilt, or believing that they’ve already done enough, as if he’s keeping an account in his head of the things they’d done for him and the rescue from Mars has him perpetually in the red. Today, though, he tips his head back so that Chris can reach and slurs out, “Feels nice,” sounding more than a little asleep despite the nap he’d taken in the car.
Chris doesn’t know how long he keeps going, fueled by the quiet hum of contentment coming from Mark, but eventually the whoosh of the fire distracts them.
Beth grins at them from across the firepit. “When it gets going, we can make hot dogs.”
“Did you bring ketchup?” Mark asks plaintively and then grins at the laugh that draws out of them.
“We did,” Beth answers, “And the stuff for s’mores.”
“This is why you’re my favorite,” Mark says, and Beth laughs again.
Mark gets up to go nose around in the food while Beth pokes needlessly at the fire, making sparks shoot up as more of the logs catch and burn, popping and filling the air with smoke. A brisk wind carries it away.
Full dark creeps up on them, and soon Chris can’t see beyond the dancing, orange light thrown out by the fire. Beth stops harassing the fire in order to cook hotdogs with Mark. Chris isn’t very hungry, still full from lunch, but he accepts the hotdog that Mark gleefully burns for him.
He returns the favor when Mark is incapable of cooking a marshmallow without it melting off the stick and dropping into the fire and carefully toasts all the marshmallows for the s’mores that Beth assembles with entirely more chocolate than Chris remembers from his childhood. He’s through almost half the bag of marshmallows when Mark collapses into the grass outside the fire pit, clutching his stomach and making sad noises.
Beth pokes him with her spare cooking rod and laughs.
“What now?” Mark asks after he disarms Beth, and they’re all settled into lazy contentment.
“I thought we might do some stargazing,” Beth says, looking up, “but…”
Mark snorts. “But fucking clouds.”
It had been clear earlier at lunch, but the wind had blown in some heavy clouds. Chris rolls his neck and tilts his head up, but he can’t see a single star. The moon is only visible as a low crescent on the horizon. “Yeah, they look a little… menacing.” A raindrop hits right on the bridge of his nose, and Chris blinks. “Uh, did you feel that?”
“Feel what?” Mark says.
Chris can hear it now, though, muffled pops of sound as the large raindrops hit the ground. The fire lets out a hiss as it’s hit with water.
Mark sits up, the alarm on his face almost comical. “Oh, shit,” he says, and then they all jump up at once, exploding into action as the rain begins to fall in earnest.
“Save the food,” Mark yells, grabbing the cooler as they hastily seal up all the food and shove it inside.
“I got it,” Chris says and runs everything back to the car, glad they hadn’t bothered to lock it when they’d emptied it early. He shoves the cooler and other bag inside the back, taking advantage of the brief cover from the trunk door to fish the keys out of his pocket. Then he’s running back, locking the door behind him to prevent any wildlife theft, the rain falling increasingly harder as he goes.
The fire is out when he gets back, but Mark and Beth have lit the lantern inside the tent, so he can see just well enough to find the zipper and tumble inside. Beth zips it back up behind him, and not a second too soon as the rain begins to fall in sheets, battering down on the curved roof of the tent.
They’re all out of breath from the mad scramble inside, and they pause for a moment, listening to the sound of the rain drown out their wildly beating hearts.
“Here,” Beth says, finally moving to root around in their stuff and pull out a towel. She hands it to him so he can dry off his hair and catch the rain dripping down his neck. “Take off your shoes, too. We don’t want mud everywhere.”
“I’m not sure it’d rained enough to become mud yet,” Chris says, but he takes off his shoes and sets them next Mark and Beth’s at the edge near the door.
“So much for stargazing,” Mark laughs.
“We’ll see,” Beth says with a raised eyebrow, “but let’s get ready for bed, first. Might as well be comfortable since we’re not going anywhere soon.”
They change into the warm, loose clothes they’d packed to sleep in, and while he didn’t get as wet as he could have, Chris is glad to be out of his damp clothes. At Beth’s prompting, they settle down on their sleeping bags, side by side on the springy camping mattress with Beth in the middle, staring up at the tent ceiling as if to pretend that it’s the open sky.
Beth fiddles with the lamp, a digital one she’d ordered online, and Chris listens to the rain pound down.
“It’s certainly a… unique view,” Mark teases.
“Hush, you,” Beth says, “I’ve almost got it.”
“Got what?” Chris asks, but before Beth can answer, the lantern light goes almost completely dark, pinpricks of light shooting out from Beth’s hands. The whole thing tilts wildly until she stabilizes it against her stomach, both hands balancing it on the bottom.
Mark’s breath catches, and Chris looks up to see that the lantern is throwing up a starfield, lights that twinkle in time to the movement of the rain on the tent and the slow in and out of Beth’s breathing.
Chris stares for a second, taking in how unexpectedly gorgeous it is, but soon his brain starts cataloging the patterns, too well trained not to try and pick out the constellations. They’re all wrong though, none of easily recognizable touchstones - the Big Dipper, the Southern Cross - leaping out at him.
He decides that it’s a randomly generated set, pretty but without substance, when Mark says faintly, “Is that… ,” then continues, louder, “I recognize these. This is Mars. This is how the stars look from Mars.”
“Yeah,” Beth agrees.
“You hacked the lantern to show the Martian sky?” Mark asks, voice hoarse with emotion.
“Well, it didn’t have security, so it’s more accurate to say that I programmed it, but yes,” Beth says. “You mentioned once that you made up constellations and stories on your trip to Schiaparelli. I thought you might share them.” Mark doesn’t reply, and his eyes are fixed on the ceiling when Chris glances over. “If you want,” Beth finishes quietly.
Chris smiles and looks up, watching the stars breathe above them as the rain continues to pour down in a steady rhythm.
The silence stretches so long that he’s not even waiting anymore, just enjoying the view, when Mark raises his hand and points to a collection of stars hanging just above the zipper to the door of the tent. His voice is barely louder than a whisper when he says, “See that edge, and then it sweeps down into those five smaller points?”
“Yeah,” Beth whispers back.
“It’s a cat,” Mark says, “All slinky and curved, with four feet and a tail. I named her Neko. She spent a lot of time below the horizon, like she was hiding.
“And there,” Mark points to a high spot, “Those little round bits looked exactly like an ice cream sundae for some reason.”
“Not a pile of potatoes?” Beth asks innocently.
“Fuck you,” Mark says mildly. “Sometimes it was nice to look up and think about what was waiting for me back on Earth, and sometimes I would get so pissed, like it was sitting up there just to mock me. More irritating than helpful, really, which makes sense for a Martian sundae.”
“And you made up stories?” Beth asks.
“Yeah,” Mark says, “I didn’t want to use myths or stories from the Torah, so I made up my own.” He pauses and then clears his throat. “See that line right there, and how the two stars at the tip are kinda blue? I always thought it looked like a lightsaber, and so I made up a Jedi to go with it, not from the Order as it exists in the shitty prequel movies, because seriously, how fucking messed up was that…”
Mark rambles on, but Chris can feel his eyelids growing heavy. He falls asleep to the low murmur of voices rising above the slowing patter of rain, tucked up against Beth’s side, with Martian stars glowing down on him as his eyes blink closed.
The next time he opens his eyes, the lights are out altogether. The temperature has dropped significantly, enough to make him shiver where he’s sleeping on top of his bag instead of inside it, and the wind whistling against the tent promises to make it even colder as the night goes on. He shifts and opens his sleeping bag enough to slip inside. Beth and Mark are both tucked inside their bags already, and at some point they switched positions so that Mark was in the middle. Maybe Mark took over lamp duty, or more likely Beth physically rolled over him in her sleep like the active sleeper she is.
Chris doesn’t have his phone with him to check the time, although he’s not sure he’d risk waking the others with the light even if he did, but the dark stillness feels like the middle of the night.
He curls up on his side, folding his hands inside the sleeping bag and waiting to warm up enough that he can fall back asleep. His shivering slows and then fades, and he’s almost drifted back to sleep again when the tent is hit with a strong gust of wind, rattling the tent poles against each other and making the canvas flap where it’s stretched out between them.
Mark bolts straight up to sitting with a ragged gasp that is immediately choked off. It’s so dark that he can only just make out Mark’s outline, rigid and so still that Chris isn’t sure he’s breathing.
“Mark?” Chris asks, keeping his voice calm and low, barely above a whisper.
Another gust of wind hits, and Mark releases the breath he’s holding in a punched out exhale.
Chris sits up and reaches out, finding Mark’s shoulder, muscles strung tight with panic, and follows it down to grip his wrist, squeezing and relaxing slowly.
Mark starts panting, finally getting air, but it’s too close to hyperventilating for comfort.
“Mark, it’s Chris,” he says in the same even tone, “You’re on Earth, and we’re camping. I bought this tent in REI, and you put it together yourself. It doesn’t have pressure seals, and there’s plenty of oxygen to breathe. I know your brain’s trying to protect you, but you’re safe here, so try to breathe a little slower, okay?”
He leans in and rests his forehead against Mark’s temple, letting his chest press against Mark’s shoulder. He keeps talking, nothing statements to let Mark focus on his voice instead of the wind, and brings his other hand up to knead gently at the muscles in Mark’s neck.
Mark hisses at the touch, probably because Chris is still so cold, but he doesn’t try to move away.
“You with me?” Chris asks.
“Yeah,” Mark breathes out, and draws in a deeper breath before letting it shudder out again. “Yeah, sorry.”
Chris hums but doesn’t reply, knowing that Mark’s not in a place where he can hear, let alone believe, that apologies aren’t necessary. “Can I help?” he asks eventually when Mark’s breath is less ragged and starting to match his own steady breathing.
“It’s cold,” Mark says.
“Yeah, it is,” Chris says, “You want me to find another blanket?”
“Okay,” Mark agrees blankly.
Chris turns to where Beth had stacked their supplies when they’d rushed back into the tent out of the rain, but keeps one hand on Mark while he unearths the navy quilt they’d brought. His mom had bought it for him, and knowing her it was probably too expensive to bring camping, but it was light and warm and big enough for three grown adults to fit under.
“Help me?” Chris asks, and Mark’s hands shake a bit, but they unfold the blanket and spread it out to cover their legs.
Beth rolls over toward them, still asleep as far as Chris can tell in the dark, and Mark flicks the far edge over to cover her.
Chris guides Mark down next to her and adjusts the quilt further before joining them. They’re still in separate sleeping bags, three little peas in a blanket-wrapped pod.
“Better?” Chris asks as he tucks one hand into the crease of Mark’s elbow.
Mark nods, and they lie quietly for a long time until another gust of wind rattles around them. This time Mark merely flinches. “I was able to repair the breach from the airlock explosion,” he says.
Chris knows every detail and has read all the reports about Mark’s time on Mars. He has watched the logs and touched every scar Mars left on Mark’s body. He already knows this. He listens intently.
“The seal was airtight. Heck, last I heard from Kapoor, the Hab still hasn’t deflated.” Mark swallows. “But the wind running across the repair was… It was so loud.”
Chris waits, but when Mark doesn’t add anything further, he says, “Sometimes I dream about the contingency plan we made for if the second probe didn’t reach us. I inject the crew one by one and watch them die by my hand.”
“Fuck,” Mark breathes out.
Chris tightens his hold on Mark’s arm and doesn’t add that sometimes - inexplicably - Mark is there, but doesn’t let Chris inject him. You’ve already killed me, he always says, right before Chris wakes.
“What do you do?” Mark asks. “Not in the… I mean, when you wake up, what do you do?”
“Try not to wake Beth up while I take her pulse,” Chris says, “I don’t know why it helps since she was supposed to be the one to live, but it does. I can usually fall back asleep by counting her heartbeats.”
Mark doesn’t respond for so long that Chris thinks he’s coaxed himself back to sleep when he whispers, “This helped. I don’t usually calm down this fast.”
“Good,” Chris says. He hesitates, not sure how to say it in a way Mark will believe. “Beth and I, the crew, we’re always here for you. Mars might stay with you, Mark, but you don’t have to carry it alone.”
Mark’s hand finds his where it’s gripping Mark’s arm, and he holds on, tight at first, and then slowly relaxing into sleep.
It takes a long time, but eventually Chris follows.
The storm has passed completely when Chris wakes up in the morning, thin dawn light filtering in through the tent. It’s still cold, though, and he shivers as he gets out of his sleeping bag and pulls on chilly clothes that give him goosebumps until he’s added enough layers to approach warmth.
He leaves Mark and Beth burrowed in their sleeping bags and goes outside. Dew paints every blade of grass and the tent surface, dripping on his head as he exits. The wind last night blew all the clouds away, and now the purple blue sky lights up slowly as the sun approaches, not yet cresting the top of the ridge.
Chris uses the outlets in the back of the car to boil water in a tiny electric kettle and makes a thermos of dark, rich tea. He usually takes his tea black, but Mark still relishes these small luxuries and adds sugar and cream until it hardly looks or tastes like tea anymore. He splits the difference, adding them both in more moderate amounts. He also makes a couple packets of instant oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit and puts three spoons in a single bowl.
He hesitates when he gets back to the tent, suddenly having second thoughts about waking Mark up after his interrupted night, but when he pokes his head inside to check on them, he finds Beth sitting up, bleary and clutching a large energy drink. Chris winces, knowing how much sugar and caffeine it contains, but he doesn’t say anything because it seems to be part of Beth’s identity as a gamer and also because Beth’s scary in the morning.
Mark has made himself a living burrito, stealing the sleeping bag Chris had left vacant to make a bigger mound, and is whining softly into his pillow. Chris grins and sits down at Beth’s feet next to him. Mark never wants to get up, but once he does, he immediately springs into action as if become vertical releases his enthusiasm.
“I have oatmeal and tea,” Chris says, carefully setting them down on the soft floor of the tent.
“What kinda tea?” Mark mumbles.
“The kind you drink,” Chris says.
“Martian tea?” Beth asks slyly.
Mark practically hisses, and Beth laughs, slowly looking more awake.
“We didn’t bring any potatoes,” Chris promises, “It’s safe to come out.”
Mark twists around and sits up, moving the covers just enough to free his hands and carefully take the plastic cup half full of steaming tea. “Too cold,” he complains, wrapping his hands around the cup and taking a careful sip, and then, with approval, a larger one.
Chris pours his own cup, and he and Mark trade sips of tea and spoonfuls of oatmeal. It warms Chris up better than his jacket had, and he says as much to Beth, but she pulls on an extra hoodie and ignores him, never one for eating breakfast.
True to form, Mark’s wide awake by the time the tea is gone, and dressed and ready when Chris finishes putting the dishes away, practically bouncing on his toes as Chris and Beth grab and adjust their backpacks.
“Don’t I get one,” Mark asks, trying to pout but too excited to really pull it off.
“I’ve got food and water, and Chris has a first aid kit,” Beth says, “Do we need to carry anything else on a hike?”
“I guess not,” Mark says, “Where are we hiking?”
Beth grins and points up at the ridge. The sun has hauled itself halfway over the edge, blotted out by trees.
“Can we get up there?” Mark asks eagerly.
“There’s a trail,” Chris says, although they’ll have to find it first.
They traipse down into the nearby grove, and the sound of water gets louder and closer until they’ve found the thin creek that cuts through the property. There’s a dodgy looking stone path across it, uneven rocks moved close enough together to allow crossing, and a wood sign on the nearest tree that declares this the beginning of the bluff trail. The tree has started to grow around the sign, the edges covered in bark, but it’s bright, as if newly painted over.
Beth leads the way, picking her way across the stones, and they begin to climb. The trail is well maintained and easily followed, zig zagging across the face of the bluff through the trees in a path that’s invisible from the ground but that means they’re never walking more than a gentle incline.
They stop twice when Mark gets out of breath, still recovering his physical stamina, but he looks good. They drink the cool water from Beth’s pack and listen in silence to the chorus of bird song around them.
The trail ends suddenly, peaking into a plateau, and Chris doesn’t even see it coming until Mark stops abruptly.
Beth turns around, and Chris can’t see what’s on Mark’s face, but Beth doesn’t say anything, and instead steps neatly off the path and out of his way, undoing her pack and fiddling aimlessly with it.
Mark takes a step forward, and then another.
Chris shrugs off his pack and goes over to Beth to set it down. Then he turns and sees the view that had been blocked by trees and the last rise of the ridge and breathes in, surprised.
The rolling hills are green except for edges and patches burnished gold by the gentle onset of autumn. They can see the creek winding down between the hills, and the trees spread out thin and then converging into a forest with the grass stretched in the spaces between. It’s a clear enough day that they can see the farmlands and vineyard that surround the property.
Chris looks at Mark again, at the outline of him in the mid morning sun against a backdrop of healthy green growth.
Every morning I go outside, whispers Martinez’s voice in the back of his head, and look at the vast horizon - just because I can.
Mark takes a deep, shuddering breath, and Beth goes over to him and takes his hand, leaning her head against his arm. Chris follows and stands at his other side, their shoulders pressed together. Mark leans into them and gazes out into the sunlit morning.
“Okay,” Mark whispers. He clears his throat and tries again, steadier this time. “Okay, yeah. This was a good idea.”